You probably missed it, but last week was Teacher Appreciation Week. One statewide funding initiative, #TeachersCan, raised nearly $1 million to help Texas teachers with classroom supplies, too often purchased by teachers out of their own modest earnings.
It’s nice that public school teachers charged with educating the state’s 5.5 million students enjoy a single workweek – May 3-7 this year – honoring their talents and dedication, but it’s the lack of focus by the state’s top elected leaders the other 51 weeks of the year that leaves many teachers questioning their calling and commitment to the profession.
Last week I wrote about the imminent opening of the Holdsworth Center in Austin, which will focus on improving the quality of school leaders, from superintendents to principals. I’ve also spent the last few weeks talking to a range of teachers as vaccinations allow the gradual opening of school campuses and in-classroom instruction.
In April, I also wrote about my opposition to the teachers union succeeding in electing its slate of school board candidates in the San Antonio Independent School District. That concern about union-backed candidates controlling a school board doesn’t mean I am not concerned about the state of the teaching profession in Texas.
For too long, Texas teachers have been underpaid, overworked, placed in classrooms with too many students, and forced by state law to “teach to the test,” rather than focus on more holistic methods of learning.
Pandemic relief efforts by the federal government have funneled billions of dollars into Texas, earmarked for public schools. Gov. Greg Abbott and other state officials had until recently blocked the flow of those funds to the schools. Widespread protest over the withheld funds apparently led them to release $11.2 billion of the $17.9 billion approved in the last two stimulus bills. Funds from the first stimulus bill never reached the schools. The state simply substituted the federal funds for state school funding; in other words, supplemental federal funding intended as pandemic relief was instead used the balance the state’s books.
That leaves $6.7 billion still on the table, although state officials will have to raise higher education spending to pre-pandemic levels in order to qualify for all the funds.
My fear now is that too little of the $11.2 billion will go directly to teachers to compensate them for the stress and added work of teaching simultaneously in the classroom and remotely and, in the process, working unsustainably long hours. New duties included communication with technology-challenged parents of remote learning students, helping to track absentee students, crafting new lesson plans designed for remote learning, and other challenges.
For too many teachers, the pandemic only made a bad situation worse.
Many of the teachers I spoke with believe they are worse off now, as the pandemic eases, than they were before the coronavirus upended their lives and work and those of the students they serve. Every teacher I spoke with knows teachers who have announced their intention to leave the profession.
To turn a cliché on its head, a good crisis has gone wasted. The lives of teachers are not being made easier, even in a moment when fundamental change is possible.
“One of the primary responsibilities of state government is public eduction,” said Clay Robison, spokesman for the Texas State Teachers Association. “The governor, lieutenant governor, and legislators should quit all these sideshow attractions, like repressing people’s right to vote and figuring out how everyone can carry a gun, hot button issues that seem more important to them than the welfare of Texas school children.
“Legislators needs to pay more attention to education,” Robison added, “including teacher burnout, the need for better health care and retirement benefits, as well as addressing salaries. These are long term issues made worse by the pandemic.”
Texas lawmakers reversed years of defunding public schools with the passage of House Bill 3 in 2019, funding that a fast-recovering economy is allowing legislators in the new budget to sustain. That’s good news. Sending 100% of the federal stimulus funds to the schools that Congress intended the money for is the next important step to take.
How teachers fare in this post-pandemic recovery will have an enormous impact in the coming years on the state of the profession and the quality of people attracted to life in the classroom. Left unaddressed, concerns surrounding work conditions, compensation, and benefits will have a long-term impact that could take a generation to reverse, which would have a profound impact on the Texas economy with too few skilled workers to fill jobs.
Demographers and public policy experts at Texas 2036 are already sounding the alarm over the impact that inadequate education outcomes will have on the Texas economy in the years ahead.
There was one other very important issue raised by teachers in my conversations with them: the importance to each of them of working at a school led by a qualified, inspiring principal. That brings us back full circle to the importance of the Holdsworth Center campus opening next month.